The Disney company has garnered a lot of press in recent years for generating film profits in ways that are clever but not necessarily creative.
First, they’ve bought companies with lucrative franchises: Pixar (“Toy Story,” “Cars”), LucasFilm (Star Wars, Indiana Jones), Marvel Studios (Iron Man, Thor, The Avengers) and 20th Century-Fox (X-Men, Fantastic Four — well, not all of them have been moneymakers, but Disney might turn those around).
Second, they’re remaking their most popular animated features as live-action films (“Beauty and the Beast,” “Aladdin,” “Mulan”) or as CGI films pretending to be live-action (“The Lion King” and most of “The Jungle Book”).
Those are fairly obvious business strategies, but another studio — The Asylum — has been employing even more derivative tactics and virtually always turning a profit. Formed in 1997, The Asylum shoots on incredibly low budgets by Hollywood standards (a million dollars or less) and releases directly to video or on the Syfy cable channel.
People behind the camera often wear multiple hats: co-founder David Michael Latt, for instance, served as director, co-producer, co-writer and editor of “H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds” (2005), a film that provided the model for much of their subsequent success.
That’s nothing new. Low-budget studios have been making cheap (in both senses) films for decades; Roger Corman, for example, with his American International Pictures built his career and his reputation that way (also helping spawn those of such Hollywood icons as Francis Ford Coppola and Jack Nicholson) and now ranks as an industry legend.
The Asylum, in addition to making movies cheaply, trades on two distinct (and distinctly odd) types of films: crazy shark franchises and what critics and fans have come to call “mockbusters” — films that, like remoras on sharks, cling to big budget films and their big-budget promotion campaigns to make their money.
The Asylum’s greatest feature success (and your greatest likelihood to have seen one of their productions) has come from the Sharknado series they’ve done since 2013 for Syfy: “Sharknado,” “Sharknado 2: The Second One,” “Sharknado 3: Oh Hell No!,” “Sharknado: The 4th Awakens,” “Sharknado 5: Global Swarming” and “The Last Sharknado: It’s About Time.”
But sharks in whirlwinds provide only a portion of the pleurotrematic (sharky) productions of The Asylum. They’ve also made a series about a megalodon (giant extinct prehistoric shark) not only terrorizing modernday humans but also battling other giant critters: “Mega Shark Versus Giant Octopus,” “Mega Shark Versus Crocosaurus,” “Mega Shark Versus Mecha Shark,” and “Mega Shark vs. Kolossus”; last year’s “Megalodon” doesn’t seem to be part of this series, however.
They’ve also done a couple of films where, as in Kevin Costner’s “Waterworld,” all the polar ice has melted and submerged all the land, and sharks become the planet’s dominant species: “Planet of the Sharks” and “Empire of the Sharks.”
But wait, there’s more — and crazier — Asylum shark films! (No, not the Sharktopus films! Those were made by Roger Corman’s company on much larger — but still small — budgets.) Yes, it’s that polycephalic pleurotremata plethora of productions: “2-Headed Shark Atttack,” “3-Headed Shark Attack,” “5-Headed Shark Attack” and “6-Headed Shark Attack.” “Why is there no ‘4-Headded Shark Attack’?” you may ask. Well, who ever heard of a four-headed shark? That’s just absurd.
The Asylum’s other mainstay consists of movies with titles and/or plots that sound a lot like major studio productions (and often with posters that bear a resemblance to the big films’ posters), which Asylum releases very shortly before or very shortly after that big-budget film hits theaters.
A distinct subset of these comprise retellings of science fiction and adventure tales that are no longer under copyright. So no one could really object to “H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds” (2005), “Pirates of Treasure Island” (2006), “Alan Quatermain and the Temple of Skulls” (2008, loosely based on H. Rider Haggard’s “King Solomon’s Mines”), “Journey to the Center of the Earth” (2008), “Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes” (2010) or “3 Musketeers” (2011). Coincidentally, though, in those very same years at nearly the same times the following major releases came out (respectively): Steven Spielberg’s “War of the Worlds,” “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest,” “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” “Journey to the Center of the Earth” (starring Brendan Fraser), “Sherlock Holmes” (directed by Guy Ritchie, starring Robert Downey Jr.) and Paul W. Anderson’s “The Three Musketeers.” And those are by no means their only coincidental literary adaptations.
Their “original” coincidental releases, however, far outstrip the adaptations. I’ll list a sampling by year, with the major release title first, followed by the Asylum title. You can safely assume there will be strong similarities between some elements of the scripts but not enough to make a copyright suit worth pursuing. 2006: “Snakes on a Plane” vs. “Snakes on a Train” (sorry, I don’t know why you wouldn’t just stop the train and get off); “The Da Vinci Code” vs. “The Da Vinci Treasure.” 2007: “Transformers” vs. “Transmorphers.” 2008: “Death Race” (itself a remake of the 1975 Corman production “Death Race 2000”) vs. “Death Racers”; “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (costly remake starring Keanu Reeves) vs. “The Day the Earth Stopped.” 2011: “Thor” vs. “Almighty Thor”; “Battle: Los Angeles” vs. “Battle of Los Angeles” (E.T.’s invade L.A. in both). 2012: “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” vs. “Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies.” 2013: “Pacific Rim” vs. (what else?) “Atlantic Rim”; “Jack the Giant Slayer” vs. “Jack the Giant Killer.” 2014: “RoboCop” (big budget remake) vs. “Android Cop”; “Fury” vs. “Ardennes Fury” (World War II tank units in both). 2015: “Avengers: Age of Ultron” vs. “Avengers Grimm” (like the Avengers but with fairy tale characters).
In 2016: “Ben-Hur” (another unnecessary big-budget remake) vs. “In the Name of Ben-Hur”; “Independence Day: Resurgence” vs. “Independents’ Day” (the president battles aliens personally in both); “Suicide Squad” (comic book villains united) vs. “Sinister Squad” (fairy tale villains united); “Ghostbusters” vs. “Ghosthunters.” 2018: “Pacific Rim: Uprising” vs. “Atlantic rim: Resurrection”; “Tomb Raider” vs. “Tomb Invader”; “Avengers: Infinity War” vs. “Avengers Grimm: Time Wars”; “The Predator” vs. “Alien Predator”; and “Bumblebee” vs. “Hornet” (robots named after insects in both).
And this year, against the “Pet Sematary” remake and Disney’s live-action “Aladdin,” The Asylum offers “Pet Graveyard” and “Adventures of Aladdin.”
You may be wondering how The Asylum can get away with this. Sometimes they don’t, but not very often. In 2012, for example, they had to change “Age of the Hobbits” to “Clash of the Empires” when the producers of “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” sued them. Apparently, the court didn’t buy their “well, they’re not those Tolkien hobbits” defense.